A month of stranger than fiction stories were promised… and, well, promised delivered! I’ve been friends and colleagues with the many writers of this blog for years, and yet I found myself consistently surprised, amused, and horrified by September’s crop of posts.
One of the dominant stereotypes about writers is that we’re all J.D. Salinger types, antisocial nerds who shut themselves up in their dark little basements and slowly grow pale from lack of direct sunlight. Okay, that might be overstating things somewhat. The point is that it couldn’t be further from the truth. In order to write resonant, exciting, and cathartic prose, you have to get out into the world and live. September was certainly a showcase for that.
In case you’ve missed any of our excellent posts this month, take a few minutes to browse what’s on offer.
I grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska. We moved there when I was ten. And as much as I hated it at the time, I grew to love it more. One of the reasons was all the incredible stories that I can tell for having lived there for a decade.
My favorite and the one that most people find bizarre is the Hair Popsicle story which believable or not, I may still use in one of my stories.
I lived at twenty-two and a quarter mile Chena Hot Springs road. The only place this road ran was the fifty miles from Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs. There was a road that t-boned it and cut over toward North Pole (an actual town and home of the Santa Claus house where you could have letters from Santa sent to children with a real North Pole postmark). To get from where I lived to my high school was a twenty-five mile trip one way. The school bus was driven by a neighbor who lived a few miles further up the road at the end of the paved and populated part of Chena Hot Springs road. She would keep the bus at her place overnight, drive it the one way picking up kids and then not return it back out there until after school when she dropped us all off. There was a definite small town feel among all of us who lived in that fourteen mile stretch of Chena Hot Springs road.
Why all this background? To set the stage. The bus driver didn’t just leave if you were running a few minutes late because the winter weather in Alaska, which was most of the school year, didn’t really accommodate waiting on the road for the bus. It was cold. And dark. In order to get us to school in time we were catching the bus at something like 6am. Truth be told, in the heart of winter, it was mostly dark twenty-four hours a day. So, the bus driver would hit the end of my driveway and honk, wait for me to run up the drive which was almost a quarter mile long, and I’d catch the bus.
Life in Alaska is a little different from anywhere else I’ve lived, and I’ve lived in eleven states. Alaska is unique.
More setting – stay with me. Because we lived in Alaska and Alaska gets cold, our school didn’t officially close down until the temperatures hit sixty below zero. Mind you, back in the Portland area of Oregon, where I used to live, if it snowed two inches, everything shut down. In Alaska, “home of the individual and other endangered species”, school and everything else went on until it hit -60°F and forget how much snow there was because we would still have four feet on the ground in April. Also, keep in mind that freezing is at 32°F. Sixty below is a full ninety degrees colder than freezing. At -50°F it was optional to go to school and the parent’s decision. I have been to school when it is optional.
This one winter, we had a long spell of cold that was in the -40°F range. This is where you can hardly breathe for the cold air hitting your lungs. I was running late that fateful morning and by the time I got out of the shower I had minutes to get dressed. I heard the bus honking as I was combing my long straight hair that was still almost dripping wet. I pulled on my boots, grabbed my coat and ran. No hat, no gloves. I didn’t even do up my coat. I just ran because I couldn’t miss the bus. Halfway down my long drive way, my hand came up and hit my hair.
You know how long hair, when wet, hangs in icicle like clumps? Yeah, that was my hair. And it had frozen in the few minutes it took to get halfway down my drive way. And frozen stuff that is hit, breaks. Yep, I broke my hair. Cursing, I grabbed the frozen hair Popsicle from the snow and ran on.
Once on the bus, I was able to truly assess the situation. I was holding an icicle of hair about an inch in diameter at the widest part and about eight inches long. It had snapped off straight, right below my ear. As my hair thawed on the ride to school, I realized how bad it was. Do try to imagine it if you can. All day at school I got teased and then had to get a horrible shag haircut to minimize the damage done.
Needless to say, I was more careful in the future, and I got a cool (get it… cool… lol) story out of it. Can’t wait to hear more tales that are stranger than fiction.
We’ve all heard the phrase that “life is stranger than fiction” but what does that really mean? For me, it means that sometimes real life happens in such a way that if I were to use the event verbatim in a fiction story my readers would cry “implausible.” Think about that for a second. Readers accept vampires, zombie detective, purple unicorns, space ships, entire West Virginia towns going back in time to create an alternate universe, (speaking of which) alternate universes, evil twins, a series of coincidences that add up to a twist ending,,, and the list could go on forever.
So, how bizarre does an event have to be before it’s “stranger than fiction?”
Do the events have to be so coincidental that the odds of the event happening are astronomical? Does the main character have to be dumber than a fence post not to see the results of her actions? For me, I think the situation has to be so divorced from what we consider “normal” that we sit back and say, “no. No one (Nothing) could be that….” Judge for yourself though as we spend September exploring events that are “Stranger Than Fiction.”
Let me start.
Most of the things I’ve seen or heard as a lawyer I can’t repeat. Sometimes though it’s the other side’s client who does the unbelievable thing. When that’s the case there’s nothing that prevents disclosure. Still, I’ve changed names and occupation.
HOW TO BE YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY
A husband and wife started an interior decorating business. Mary was responsible for getting and performing the work. John took care of the back office tasks – staffing, bookkeeping, banking, billing and the like. Years into the business they were doing well on a professional front (millions of dollars in gross revenue) but not so much on the personal one. Suspicion and distrust ran deep. A little deeper on one side than the other. Eventually, Mary accused John of embezzling. Mary hired an attorney (not me) to file for divorce and seek a court appointed receiver for the business. John hired an attorney (again, not me) to counter-sue for divorce and defend the theft allegations.
Mary alleged John would go to the bank every Friday with pizza for the bank tellers. In return, the bank tellers of a national bank would cash checks for John, andl hand him bundles of cash. The tellers would then create a false bank statements that wouldn’t show the deposit (if the check had come from a company client) or the withdraw (if the check being cashed were a company one). John believed that every gap in the checks sequence on the bank statements represented a check Mary used wrongfully withdraw the money from the company. She thought John stole millions of dollars this way. After all the company had margins of 60% so where was the money? Mary’s definition of “margin” didn’t include most of the company’s salaries or overhead. Mary also thought John was stealing her paychecks.
The receiver (yup, this is where I come in) obtained copies of all the bank statements from the national bank (not the branch John was allegedly feeding) and payments from the company’s client. Like most businesses some of the jobs from a gross profit number were very profitable and others were dead losers. Once you took out the operating cost including a HUGE monthly payment for their house the company ran deeply in the red. There was no proof of a national conspiracy. The checks…checked out. And those paychecks? They were deposited into a joint bank account. From the company’s standpoint there was no misappropriation of funds.
We met with Mary’s attorney for hours to explain the situation. Mary fired the attorney when she agreed with the Receiver. Mary hired another attorney to pursue the claim. He lasted as long as her retainer did. No amount of reason could shake Mary’s belief that John had robbed her blind. She accused the Receiver of being paid off by John (NOT) when the Receiver wouldn’t support her theories.
Mary threatened to report that the tax returns were false to the appropriate authorities when the Receiver wouldn’t amend the returns to show the “missing” income. We said she needed to do what she needed to do but we didn’t have any evidence to support her position. While there were substantial tax debt owed the various agencies had been mostly silent on collection since no one had any money. Ultimately, Mary called the governmental entity designed to ensure that people paid their taxes to report that John had under-reported the company’s income for years. She didn’t think about the fact that she was listed as a 51% co-owner or that she would be deemed to have received 51% of the “stolen” money as a result.
Well, the taxing agencies were no longer willing to wait to see if the Receiver collected enough money to pay them. After all, Mary just advised them that the couple had vastly under-reported their income for years. So, now Mary has some tax issues to deal with. And she still insists that John stole millions of dollars.
Back in April, I posted about procrastination. Since then I’ve been thinking about writer’s block and whether or not it actually exists. Sure, I struggle to write at times. Actually I struggle to write most of the time. But I can usually identify a reason: fatigue, stress, not knowing my characters well enough, not knowing where the story is heading, not being in a creative mood… I can give you any number of reasons why I can’t write today. But is it “writer’s block”? Or is it just me making excuses?
In the movie Stranger than Fiction, one of the lead characters is a writer who is unable to come up with a way to kill off a character in her book. The plot paints her as a wildly successful writer who is paralysed by her own success. But is this necessarily “writer’s block” or a case of someone who lets herself be overcome by circumstances to the point where she can no longer write?
I’ve read several theories about what causes writer’s block – it’s a result of stressful conditions, it’s a disruption to activity in a particular part of the brain, it’s a writer running out of inspiration… I’m not arguing these aren’t all real issues that can halt the flow of words but aren’t we using them as excuses? We’re too tired, too stressed, too busy to write, so we tell ourselves we have writer’s block. What other profession would accept this as a valid reason for not producing the required work? I’m sorry, I can’t paint your house today because I have painter’s block. I can’t clean your teeth because I have dentist’s block. I can’t sell you any milk because I have shop assistant’s block. It’s really quite ludicrous when you think about it.
So I’ve decided I will no longer believe in writer’s block. If Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny stop coming around because we no longer believe in them then I choose to believe that writer’s block will disappear if I don’t believe in that either.
This doesn’t mean I won’t ever be too tired or too busy to write. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever have one of those days when I sit at the computer for hours without writing a single word. It doesn’t mean writing will suddenly become easy. It just means I have one fewer excuse for why I’m not producing what I know I can.